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How to Dress for Cold-Water Paddling

Spring and Fall are great times to paddle,

but the cold water temperatures encountered during those seasons make paddling significantly more dangerous. Paddlers who are immersed in cold water lose body heat four to five times faster than when in air of the same temperature. Such rapid heat loss can lead to cold shock, cold incapacitation, hypothermia, and death.

The primary mechanism of heat loss in cold water is convection, where water constantly flowing over your skin carries heat away. Therefore, reducing the flow of cold water across the skin, by wearing appropriate clothing, reduces your risk.

For more information on preparing for cold-water paddling (including life-saving tips and recommended skills practice), read Off-Season Boating, Cold Shock, and Hypothermia by Chuck Sutherland, Cold Water Paddling: Preparation and Outfitting by Daniel Smith of New England Sea Kayaker, or drop by our Paddling Store and speak to one of our dedicated paddlers.

How Cold is Cold?
When do you need to wear your cold-water gear? We recommend the American Canoe Association's guidelines for cold-water paddling — always wear protective clothing when:
  • both the water temperature and the air temperature are below 60F
  • you will be more than 1/4 mile from shore and the water temperature is below 60F
  • you expect be repeatedly exposed to cool (65-70F or less) water in cool or mild weather

  • However, the colder the water, the more dangerous immersion becomes, so be aware of this increased risk and dress accordingly. The following chart shows our minimum recommendations for paddling clothing. Choose more-protective clothing than what's indicated when the conditions are more challenging, you tend to get cold easily, or you expect to be immersed.
    WATER
    TEMPERATURE:
    60F and up
    55-59F
    45-54F
    below 45F
    HYPOTHERMIA
    RISK:
    low
    moderate
    high
    extreme
    APPROPRIATE
    CLOTHING:
    clothing for the weather
    wetsuit or drysuit
    drysuit recommended
    drysuit strongly recommended
    And how cold is the water now? Visit the National Oceanographic Data Center's page on New England Sea Temperatures to view current and historical average water temperatures at eight locations throughout New England.

    Layering for Paddlers
    Generally, dressing for paddling is similar to any other outdoor activity: you want to wear layers that can be added and removed throughout the day to adjust your clothing to the changing outdoor temperature. Most importantly, all clothing you choose should retain very little water if it gets wet; otherwise you lose a tremendous
    amount of body heat warming the water in your clothes. For this reason, cotton clothes should be avoided at all costs.

    The inner layer, or base layer, should consist of wicking synthetic fabrics like polypropylene. This layer should draw sweat and moisture away from your skin and allow it to evaporate quickly. A thin base layer is best, because a thick base layer will prevent you from adjusting to warmer temperatures. Even your underwear should be made of wicking fabric — it's much more comfortable!

    An excellent example of a wicking base layer is Hydrosilk paddlewear by NRS (shown at right). Hydrosilk is a nylon/spandex blend that keeps you dry and cool when it's warm, and warm when it's cool. Learn more about Hydrosilk.

    The second layer is for insulation, so it can consist of fleece, wool, or other insulating, non-absorbing materials. Again, one or two thin layers is ideal (unless it is very cold), because then you can more easily adjust to a variety of conditions.

    The outer layer is for protection from the elements. Here you will choose a paddling jacket, drysuit, or whatever you need to avoid the rain, sun, wind, spray, surf, and anything else that comes your way.

    Wetsuits & Neoprene Paddlewear
    A wetsuit is a neoprene garment that traps a thin layer of water between itself and your skin and reduces the circulation of this water. Because this water layer must necessarily be thin, a wetsuit must fit snugly to properly protect you during immersion, and the paddler should not wear any clothes underneath the suit.
    WETSUIT ADVANTAGES:
  • inexpensive
  • resistant to rough treatment
  • keeps you warm in cold air
  • WETSUIT DISADVANTAGES:
  • hot in warm weather
  • doesn't keep you dry
  • doesn't breathe (retains sweat)
  • limited range of protection (best in water 50F and above)
  • Most kayakers choose a Farmer John style of wetsuit (shown above right), which has full legs but no sleeves. A Farmer John is more comfortable and less constricting when paddling, but doesn't offer as much protection as a wetsuit with full sleeves and hood. Whichever style you choose, make sure it has an available relief zipper
    so you don't have to remove the entire suit to answer Nature's call.

    Importantly, a wetsuit is not outerwear, it is a base layer — wearing anything under your wetsuit (other than, perhaps, polypro underwear) compromises its ability to keep you warm. Layer clothes on top of the wetsuit if you need to keep warm.

    Recently, a wide variety of neoprene garments have been introduced that offer more flexibility than a wetsuit. For example, the NRS Hydroskin line of paddlewear is available in mix-and-match tops and bottoms, both long- and short-sleeved. Paddlers can more easily adjust to the current weather conditions by selecting the appropriate combination of garments. For example, on a warm day when you'll be repeatedly immersed in cooler water, you might choose a neoprene short-sleeve top and shorts. Learn more about Hydroskin.

    Drysuits & Paddling Suits
    A drysuit is a waterproof garment with latex gaskets at all openings (ankles, wrists, and neck) to keep out all water. No water circulates across your skin during immersion, and the insulating layers worn under the suit decrease heat loss to the water.

    Because drysuits are made of breathable materials, they trap less sweat inside the garment than traditional, non-breathable fabrics like urethane-coated nylon. Therefore, drysuits are amazingly comfortable in a wide range of air temperatures, especially if there is wind to keep you cool.
    DRYSUIT ADVANTAGES:
  • comfortable in wide temp. range
  • breathable (releases sweat)
  • can protect against very cold water
  • keeps you dry
  • DRYSUIT DISADVANTAGES:
  • expensive
  • tears must be immediately repaired
  • Under your drysuit, you'll want to layer as described above. The danger here is wearing too much, resulting in overheating. Often a single lightweight or midweight base layer is sufficient, and you should only consider fleece layers if it's cold out.

    There are many waterproof/breathable fabrics used in today's drysuits, like Gore-Tex (Kokatat, left image above) or Entrant (Immersion Research). The most important qualities of such a fabric are life span, abrasion resistance, ease of patching in the field, and resistance to clogging in salt water.

    Various manufacturers have recently introduced less expensive waterproof/breathable fabrics, like Tropos (by Kokatat, center image above). Tropos is about 40% less expensive than Gore-Tex, bringing drysuits into a price range appealing to more paddlers. Unfortunately, when compared to Gore-Tex, Tropos is not as durable and has a shorter life span; Kokatat guarantees Gore-Tex for life and Tropos for two years.

    The latex gaskets used in drysuits will last for years with proper care (see below), but do eventually wear out and tear. Fortunately, these gaskets can be replaced at a reasonable cost.

    There are many drysuit options available to increase your comfort. Paddlers will be much happier if their drysuit has a relief zipper or drop seat. Attached socks (rather than ankle gaskets) will help keep your feet warmer. And an overskirt that seals against your sprayskirt helps prevent water from entering the cockpit during Eskimo rolls.

    For those looking for a less expensive option, Kokatat offers their Super Nova Paddling Suit (right image above). Made of Tropos, this suit has wrist gaskets, attached socks, and a relief zipper or drop seat, but substitutes an adjustable punch-through neoprene neck closure for the neck gasket. While not completely waterproof, this closure keeps out most water and will suffice in most situations of brief head immersion. The Super Nova is not recommended for those who frequent challenging conditions, like surf or Eskimo rolls.

    Drytops & Paddling Jackets
    A drytop is a waterproof jacket with neck and wrist gaskets and (usually) an overskirt. Drytops are available in many of the same waterproof fabrics used in drysuits, like H2No (left image at right) and Tropos (center image at right).

    A drytop protects you from cold water as long as you do not wet-exit from your kayak; once you wet-exit you rely only on the clothes you are wearing on your legs and underneath the garment for warmth. Therefore, drytops are great for the paddler with a bomb-proof Eskimo roll.
    DRYTOP ADVANTAGES:
  • less expensive than a drysuit
  • more comfortable than a drysuit in warmer temperatures
  • breathable (releases sweat)
  • keeps you dry if you don't wet-exit
  • DRYTOP DISADVANTAGES:
  • expensive
  • tears must be immediately repaired
  • no cold-water protection if you wet-exit
  • A less expensive option is a paddling jacket, which has coated-Lycra wrist cuffs and neck closure to keep out most water. Paddling jackets do not generally seal at the waist, however, so during Eskimo rolls a paddler is likely to take on some water. Therefore, paddling jackets should not be relied on to protect you from immersion in cold water. However, for protection from rain, spray, or waves when the water is warmer, a simple paddling jacket is ideal.

    Like drytops, paddling jackets are available in Gore-Tex and other waterproof/breathable fabrics. For example, the Tropos Super Breeze by Kokatat (right image above) is priced very reasonably and will go a long way to keep you comfortable in less-than-ideal conditions.

    Keeping Your Hands Warm
    It's easy to get cold hands when paddling in cold weather or cold water. They're exposed to wind
    and spray, and often end up in the water. Keeping your hands warm is critical, but it can be easy once you have the right gear.

    To keep your hands warm you have two main options: neoprene pogies (left image) or gloves (right image). Neoprene gloves protect your fingers, but can hold water and reduce your grip on the paddle shaft. With gloves, it's tough to eliminate that "my-hands-are-wet" feeling.

    Pogies, on the other hand, don't hold heat quite as well but drain easily and allow direct contact between your hand and the paddle. They are simple to put on, too — simply attach them to your paddle shaft and then slip your hands in and out as needed.

    In the end, the choice between gloves and pogies is one of personal preference. Try them both and see which one works best for you.

    Keeping Your Head Warm

    Keeping the head warm makes for a happy and comfortable paddler. Waterproof hats are some of the nicest pieces of paddling gear because they'll keep your head warm and dry in rain or spray. Kokatat makes a Gore-Tex hat called the Nor'wester (shown at right).

    For colder days, or for times when you know you will be immersed in cold water, NRS makes the Sea Hood out of their Mystery fabric. Mystery does not absorb water and dries quickly while also holding in your body heat, making it perfect for immersion. This hood is a favorite of our staff during April Guide Training weekend, when we hone our skills and practice rescues in 40F ocean water.

    Keeping Your Feet Warm
    Finally, let's discuss shoes made to keep your feet warm. Let's face it: your feet are going to get

    wet when you're paddling, and they don't do much work while in the boat, so you'd better wear something to keep them warm.

    Neoprene booties are the preferred footwear when the water is cold. A wide variety of booties is currently available, most of which come with a thick rubber sole to provide grip and protection when you walk on rocks. Even when wearing a drysuit with socks, booties will help keep your feet warm and protect the suit from damage.

    Booties come in high-top, over-the-ankle types and low-top, exposed-ankle types (see the image above). Over-the-ankle booties are much better at preventing water infiltration, and are therefore better at keeping you warm in cold water. For warmer water or weather, low-top booties provide protection for your sole and heel. Sandals can be a good choice in the warmest water and weather, but some kayakers complain of heel pain as their heel rubs on the inside of the boat while paddling.

    Care and Feeding of Cold-Water Gear
    Once you've made the investment in cold-water paddling gear, you'll want it to last as long as possible. Here are a few simple instructions to keep your gear performing like new.

    After your trips, promptly hang your gear to dry. If it's been used in salt water, rinse it thoroughly with fresh water. NEVER put latex gaskets or neoprene in the dryer!

    Protect your gear from ultraviolet light! Don't store gear in direct sunlight. Regularly treat your gear, including wetsuits and latex gaskets, with 303 UV Protectant.

    Be especially careful with drysuit zippers. Keep all dirt out of the teeth. Store your drysuit with the zipper open and unkinked.

    Learn more about care and feeding of your gear at Kokatat's product care page.

    Come Talk To Us!
    Charles River Canoe & Kayak stocks drysuits, wetsuits, paddling jackets, gloves, and pogies. If we don't stock it, we are happy to special-order it. Once you've considered the options, come talk to us. If you have any questions, we're here to help — drop by our Paddling Store, attend our free How To Dress for Cold-Water Paddling clinic, or e-mail us!

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    2401 Commonwealth Avenue; Newton, Massachusetts 02466; (617) 965-5110
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